Capsule Options is a new weekly column intended to provide reviews of nearly every new indie release. This week’s capsules are written by Indiewire’s Chief Film Critic, Eric Kohn along with other contributors as noted.
REVIEWS THIS WEEK:
“The Day He Arrives”
“The Giant Mechanical Man”
“Goodbye First Love”
“The Moth Diaries”
“Snow on tha Bluff”
Lawrence Kasdan’s career is largely defined by refined character-driven storytelling (“The Big Chill,” “The Accidental Tourist”), and his screenwriting credits on eighties blockbusters prove he knows how to move things along at an exciting pace. This makes the general lack of credible dialogue, people and situations in Kasdan’s “Darling Companion” especially baffling. The movie stumbles about with blatant amateurism and an annoyingly Disneyfied plot. Diane Keaton plays disgruntled suburbanite Beth, a woman tired of living in the shadow of her successful doctor husband Joseph (Kevin Kline). In the wake of their daughter’s wedding in the High Rockies, the couple takes a vacation in the country with a few friends and the affable Freeway, a dog Beth rescued from the side of the road (get it?). When Freeway wanders off into the wilderness and vanishes without a trace, the group sets off on a comedy of misadventures that bring innumerable tensions to the surface. The supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest and Mark Duplass, do what they can to sustain an aimless quest, which teeters on an uncertain line between farce and sentimentalism, rarely holding interest in either regard. Kudos to Kasdan for taking a stab at a lower budget production, I guess, but “Darling Companion” demonstrates the worst extreme of working with no boundaries, grasping for a profound message and routinely coming up dry. Bearably mediocre at first, the script takes an extreme nosedive when the cabin manger (Ayelet Zurer) pretends to use her mystical gypsy powers to find the missing mutt. Outside of her pointlessly stereotypical role, the performances sustain the movie through a visible desire to deepen its pathos. Unfortunately, the dog isn’t the only thing missing from this lame story. Criticwire grade: D+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
The first Hong Sang-soo movie released in the U.S. since “Woman on the Beach” in 2008 provides an ideal entry point to the Korean director’s work. The evocative black-and-white photography draws out the experience of the protagonist, frustrated filmmaker Seongjun (Jun-Sang Yu), as he travels from his country home to Seoul for three days to visit an old friend. Scenes repeat themselves several times: Seongjun runs into a young woman familiar with his work and hoping to land a role in his non-existent next movie, gets drunk at a bar with his pal and bangs out a mournful tune on the piano at a local pub, manages passionate texts from his not-quite-ex-girlfriend, and makes out with a new woman he meets who looks just like the former flame. Seongjun’s life has grown empty, no matter how much admiration he receives from others about his filmmaking, because he can’t find a way to rejuvenate the cycle of nothingness surrounding him.
The lack of finality to his behavior sometimes lends a cumbersome weight to proceedings that could benefit from more levity; those desiring some grand climax will come away perplexed. However, “The Day He Arrives” garners impact from its mirroring of the difficulty involved in being oneself around various different people. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed on April 16, 2012. Opens Friday at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Released by Cinema Guild.
“Once” + “Save The Last Dance” for Russian emigres, “Downtown Express” follows scholarship student Sasha (actual violinist Philippe Quint, the only Russian in the cast) as he prepares for his Julliard recital under the watchful eye of father Vadim (Brit Michael Cumpsty) and annoying cousin Arkady (American Ashley Springer). Drawn towards street music of all types, Sasha begins ditching string trio subway busking with Vadim and Arkady to play with the NPR-friendly band of Ramona (singer-songwriter Nellie McKay). Their musical chemistry turns romantic, with Sasha laying down classical licks alongside the band for enthusiastic Lower East Side crowds. The rebellion/synthesis of classical tradition and pop rebellion is hackneyed, but documentarian David Grubin mercifully minimizes overt conflict in his fiction debut. Of-the-moment location footage of self-conscious Brooklyn bohemia and Brighton Beach is a plus, and even the heavily-accented Russian mugging takes on a minor charm in a rare, not-totally-cloying crowdpleaser. Criticwire grade: B- [Vadim Rizov]
Opens Friday at New York’s Quad Cinema. Released by International Film Circuit.
Documentarians Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (the terrific “Gunner Palace”) take a thorough look at the inner circle of Mixed Martial Arts competitors by following a group of young would-be fighter stars in Southern Louisiana. The footage is gorgeously shot, bloody and dominated by enough excessive libido-fueled rage to please anyone enthralled by the sport. However, the technical polish never develops beyond its baseline appeal, despite transparent attempts to read into the sport as a primal expression of barbaric rage, a conclusion obvious to anyone with a brain. “Fight is truth,” says one grave-faced trainer in an early pronouncement that defines the ponderous analytical tone. Although certainly watchable for the intensity of its footage, “Fightville” fails to deconstruct its subject with the kind of formalist invention of Frederick Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym” or the emotion of Robert Greene’s recent indie wrestling doc “Fake It So Real.” Instead, “Fightville” resides in a world of brutality and seems trapped by it as well. Criticwire grade: B- [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles as well as cable on demand. Released by MPI.
“The Office” star Jenna Fischer is an innately likable performer. She has a charming self-effacing quality; is cute without trying too hard; and has (what seems like) effortless comedic chops. All of that makes its way to the screen in her latest romantic comedy vehicle “The Giant Mechanical Man,” but Fischer is left out to dry thanks to a clunker of a script (courtesy of her husband Lee Kirk, no less, who also directed this dud), that’s as ‘mechanical’ as they come. In the Tribeca Films release, Fischer plays Janice, a woman in her 30s struggling to learn how to properly navigate adulthood. After getting fired from her dead-end temp job, she moves in with her overbearing sister (a one-note Malin Ackerman), and gets a job at the local zoo where she meets Tim (Chris Messina laying on the charm), a street performer with baggage of his own. The usually reliable Lucy Punch (“Bad Teacher”) is completely wasted as Tim’s heinous girlfriend everyone’s supposed to hate, leaving Topher Grace to steal the show as Doug, a smarmy, wannabe self-help guru, who has the hots for Janice. His exchanges with Fischer make for the film’s best, most awkward scenes, but they can’t save what’s a run-of-the-mill romcom, with nary a surprise. Criticwire grade: C [Nigel M. Smith]
Now available on cable VOD; opens theatrically next Friday. Released by Tribeca Film.
Director Mia Hansen-Love is only 30 years old, but her three films already contain textures sharply attuned to the experiences of a long life. “The Father of My Children” was a tragic story of personal obsession with a structural surprise at the midway point. Her third feature, “Goodbye First Love,” folds in on itself: The story of a teen romance that won’t die, it holds so tightly to feelings of lovesickness that it eventually inhabits them. Opening in 1999, the story follows 15-year-old Camille (Lola Créton) and her mad love affair with the equally passionate 19-year-old Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). But Sullivan has other passions as well, including a desire to travel the world by himself. The director sympathizes with her creation while using her to critique inexperienced romantic desire. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed August 6, 2011. Opens Friday at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center. Also available on demand. Released by IFC Films.
The best sequence in “Marley,” Kevin Macdonald’s sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour chronicle of Bob Marley’s legacy, arrives at the very end. While the credits roll, Macdonald shows Marley fans around the world singing his greatest hits. The diverse cultures and appearances, united by Marley’s lyrics and good vibes, speak to the singer’s global effect–as well as its lasting appeal today.
It’s enough to make the fairly conventional overview of his career preceding the finale look comparatively tame. Despite its breadth, “Marley” delivers little more than a well-crafted overview sure to please diehard fans while leaving others unmoved. However, Macdonald’s approach gives a definitive feel to “Marley,” from its earliest moments tracking the singer from his impoverished Jamaican roots through the apex of his stardom and final days of a losing battle with cancer. Macdonald’s massive list of talking heads includes close relatives, childhood friends, former bandmates and producers, each of whom contributes to the movie’s fluid structure. It’s easy to get swept up in the Marley fever when virtually every subject has something overly kind and even worshipful to say about Marley’s legacy. Criticwire grade: B- [Eric Kohn]
Opens Friday in several cities as well as cable VOD; also streaming on Facebook. Previously reviewed on February 12, 2012.
You can’t blame director Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol,” “American Psycho”) from trying to cash in on the teen-vampire craze, but this isn’t the way. The ingredients are there — an elite, all-girl boarding school where coeds roam the grounds in diaphanous white gowns and a weird new student, Ernessa (Lily Cole) walks through glass windows and develops a special fondness for classmate Lucie (Sarah Gadon). Could the new arrival be a neckbiter, as another student, Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), suspects? Or is Rebecca just stressed out by her famous father’s suicide? Except for a chilling scene in which blood rains from the ceiling, Harron never goes for the jugular. The result is more a generic coming-of-age drama than a vampire thriller. The one redeeming quality is Brit model Lily Cole as Ernessa. Her red hair died goth black, she could give Kristen Stewart a run for her blood money as queen of teen vampire flicks. Criticwire grade: B [V.A. Musetto]
Opens Friday at the IFC Center. Released by IFC Films.
Korean director Je-Gyu Kang’s return after a 7-year hiatus is testament to how sorely we needed him. What starts out as a rivalry between marathon runners Jun-sik Kim (Dong-gun Jang) and his boyhood-turned-vengeful rival Tatsuo (Joe Odagiri) transforms into an overwhelming portrait of World War II, where Koreans were forced to fight for the Japanese. Tatsuo becomes the general of the unit Jun-sik is forced into and that’s when Kang is free to stage what should’ve been the set pieces of “War Horse” (there’s even an exploding horse). Of course, the melodrama is amped up to be as intense as the action and set pieces, making it a bit of a slog at times to see just how much torture one group of soldiers can go through. However, if that means getting to watch Kang masterfully move through his sets and musical swells, then it’s worth it. Criticwire grade: A [John Lichman]
“Oki’s Movie” provides no easy access point for those who aren’t hip to Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s fixation on interrogating the nature of the viewing experience. Like 2010’s “HaHaHa,” in which a pair of unreliable narrators exchange stories of recent experiences and end up getting their tales confused, nothing is entirely certain in “Oki’s Movie.” The film takes the form of several shorts involving interlocking characters at various stages of their lives and mainly dealing with relationship problems. An older film professor contemplates retirement while his students grapple with their own projects. The lingering possibility that we’re actually watching their films is a mystery never resolved by the final end credits. Viewed as a single experience, “Oki’s Movie” is a curious oddity worthy of multiple viewings and lengthy contemplation, but its tricky formalism makes it less overtly satisfying on an emotional level. Still, Hong fans will find exactly what they’re looking for. Criticwire grade: B [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed on April 16, 2012. Opens Friday at New York’s Maysles Cinema. No distributor.
A brilliant, frenetic action vehicle from French director Frédéric Jardin already set for a remake by Warner Bros., “Sleepless Night” features a breathless account of seemingly corrupt cop Vincent (Tomer Sisley) whose attempt to steal a bag of coke leads to the kidnapping of his teenage son, speaks for itself so well that cloning it would insult the near-perfect realization of action dynamics. Jardin avoids exposition, peppering the action with small details but jumping right into the conflict. The coke theft and subsequent kidnapping take place within minutes, and then “Sleepless Night” settles into a seedy nightclub where the majority of the action takes place. Using the nightclub as the movie’s only set is a geographical masterstroke, because every instance of running and fighting takes place with an amazing implementation of speed within close quarters. The action alternately takes place in a staircase, an elevator, a kitchen, and a very crowded dance floor. Even the in-movie audience can’t look away. Criticwire grade: A [Eric Kohn]
Originally reviewed September 25, 2011. Available now on cable VOD; opens theatrically next week. Released by Tribeca Film.
A mesmerizing blend of found footage storytelling and legitimate documentary activism, “Snow on tha Bluff” features a thieving hustler named Curtis Snow living in “The Bluff,” a low income, crime-stricken neighborhood in Atlanta. After stealing a camera from spoiled college kids looking to steal drugs, Snow uses the device to document his frantic world, a rickety place always on the brink of another shootout or drug death. Snow, whose brother was killed years earlier, suffers through a never-ending cycle of gang warfare, drug dealing, bullet-dodging…and an attempt at family life. The film goes to extraordinary lengths to deconstruct its anti-hero’s menacing aura and reduce him to an object of sympathy largely trapped by his anarchic surroundings. Although it meanders through a middle section and the obvious reenactments lack the same minutae used to flesh out Snow’s character, the real life protagonist is no less fascinating than the subject of a Shakespearean tragedy–but his struggles also maintain an inherent topicality that deconstruct the average newscast about inner city violence by getting uncomfortably intimate with the hidden details. Criticwire grade: B+ [Eric Kohn]
Opens this Friday at New York’s reRun Gastropub. No distributor.
After an unknown mining accident causes people to turn into zombies, a section of Chile is cordoned off and a quarantine zone formed. Fifteen years later, a rag-tag group of mercenaries lead by Colonel Rainoff are to lead two scientists into the region to conduct experiments. Of course, there’s more going on, but this super-microbudget picture loses steam before the “big reveal.” Aside from a hand-held tracking shot through a farm, there’s really not a lot going on here except for Roger Corman flourishes and indications that these people have a lot of fun together (the co-director’s other film, “Blind Death,” features the same actors as their characters but no zombies). The passion for the genre is here, down to the trigger happy “good guys,” but the gruff one-liners from the Colonel (“The idea of pulling down anyone’s pants and finding a vagina lowers morale”) to the zombies being attracted by rape reminds you about the cheap nature of the film. Still, there’s a cultish charm to everything here, even if the plot is laid out like one giant George Romero metaphor. Criticwire grade: C [John Lichman]
Opens Friday in select cities. Released by Eagle One Media and iFN.